Archive for December, 2009

Ode to the Best Toy Ever Given

Posted in Uncategorized on December 23, 2009 by thebibliophile

Teddy Ruxbin

All About the Mens

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on December 14, 2009 by thebibliophile

Working on it…. thinking about the parallels between Tiger Woods, Chris Brown, Rihanna, and the intersections of race, culture, sexism – anti-black sentiment and the idea that all things must, will, should, and can be seen by our overworked media culture.

Somehow, I feel that being a womynist who speaks against and about the ways in which womyn’s gender and sexuality is promblematized, also means that one must look at the ways that masculinity and men are impacted by the system of sexism.

Perhpas Michel Martin said it best in her “Can I Just Tell You,” piece today when she talked about feeling compassion for Chris Brown and Tiger Woods despite their problematic behavior. Listen to Martin’s piece here.

Tiger Woods

Yinka Shonibare MBE Series Part III: Crippled Politics, Whole Identity, Body Politics in Yinka Shonibare MBE’s Art

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on December 7, 2009 by thebibliophile

Artist Yinka Shonibare MBE

 Part III of the series on Yinka Shonibare, MBE’s work, focuses on the body politics and ability by looking at two pieces: The Age of Enlightenment series and his cinematically photographed Dorian Gray, in which the artist himself appears as the title character.  Both works confront and subvert iconic Western philosophers, in the case of The Age of Enlightenment,  or the fictional character in the case of Dorian Gray.     

 In The Age of Enlightenment, a series of Shonibare’s signature headless fiberglass mannequins, in Dutch wax print cloth. Five mannequins are featured, each representing a Western philosopher or thinker at work, and shown with a physical difference (or (dis)ability).  Adam Smith, for example, is positioned in front of a bookcase, returning a book to a shelf.  Smith’s headless mannequin is featured with a curvature or “hump” in the spine, medically known as scioliosis. Upon closer inspection one may notice that all of the books in the bookcase are Smith’s pivotal text Wealth of Nations. Not only is this a humorous turn, but it also suggests the narcissistic misunderstanding of a system that has used Smith’s work to build a myth of the infallibility of capitalism.        

A myth, that within the last decade, from Enron to corporate bailouts, has taken a serious tumble from the shelf. Not to mention that Smith’s understanding of capitalism and economy is often misunderstood: Smith wasn’t suggesting that capitalism should be completely unregulated, he was discussing the power and economic relationship between the colonizer (England) and the colonized (in this case the colonies of the U.S.). Such juxtaposition adds an additional level to Shonibare’s work. The presence of a physical difference can be read in multiple ways. 

Mannequin representing Adam Smith in Yinka Shonibare's In The Age of Enlightenment series.

 Traditionally, in the Western canon, in the visual and narrative vocabulary, a physical difference or disability, stood in to represent a character’s moral weakness or turpitude. In this case, Shonibare has taken great figures in the Western canon and placed the weight of Western associations with (dis)ability  – lack of morality, weakness of character, inherent and core miscreancy and disorder, onto, not only their physical bodies, but also onto their body of work – Wealth of Nations, it’s myth, and repercussions for those in the colonized position, for example.         

Adam Smith

In this way, the concepts of (dis)ability and “crippledness” are placed on the bodies of those whose theories and understandings have led to the further colonialization or exploitation of the Third World – particularly at the expense of people of color. Such an inversion of ability and its meaning, perhaps has a double meaning for the artist, who has a difference in ability himself.

 At 19, Shonibare contracted a virus that caused partial paralysis.     By reframing and subverting the concept of ability, in some ways perhaps the artist is able to comment on the perception of individuals with ability differences; challenges the idea that it is the appearance of the physical difference that signals character flaws as opposed to actual behavior and concepts – or the idea that the body can stand in and signal anything but myth.    Signifiers play an important role in Shonibare’s work. As he explained it in 2005,        

 “The main preoccupation within my art education was the construction of signs as outlined in Roland Barthes’s Mythologies. So the idea of the theatrical for me is actually about art as the construction of a fiction, art as the biggest liar. What I want to suggest is that there is no such thing as a natural signifier, that the signifier is always constructed–in other words, that what you represent things with is a form of mythology.”      

 The title of Shonibare’s work is telling. He references the much celebrated “Age of Enlightenment,” an age in which Europe was experiencing a renaissance in philosophical and scientific discovery, at a time when the rapid changes in Europe were fueled by the forced labor of enslaved Africans, the rise of the imperial nation-state, and a modern capitalist nation that perpetuated inequity and mechanization.       

Moreover, many of the scientific “discoveries” appearing on the European continent during the 18th century, where discoveries that were well-known, or had been adapted from ancient Persian, Greece, and Africa culture. It is questionable then, who precisely was being enlightened? And what it means to christen an age as such, when it has been built very literally, on the backs of enslaved human beings.  The “age of enlightenment” has a suggestion of a certain heady intellectualism divorced from the body, and yet its an era that happened when very real physical violence, oppression, and production made the luxury of the age possible.  The state of enlightenment is referencing everything mechanical, commercial, and intellectual, but avoids looking at the impact of the so-called enlightenment on human beings.       

Textile conservator, Tracey Wedge, cleaning the fabric on The Age of Enlightenment - Jean le Rond d'Alembert to ensure it is spotless for the opening. Photo credit: John McIver

 In addition to Adam Smith, Shonibare continues the series, featuring five key figures: mathematician and ecyclopedist Jean le Rond d’Alembert, mathematician Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier, Marquise de Châtelet, philosopher Immanuel Kant, and chemist Antoine Lavoisier. While the connections to Smith and Kant, and its impact on the colonized world are clear, the remaining three characters require a keen remembrance of Enlightenment history. What is clear, is that the five leaders of the Enlightenment impacted the conceptions the West had of itself and thus on global parity.    

 The ideas and concepts of these leaders often “crippled” the Wests’ thinking – seducing the West into thinking that imperialism and colonial aspirations were in fact enlightened ways to relate to the rest of the world. Who then is the real “cripple?    

In Dorian Gray, Shonibare’s photo-cinematic representation of Oscar Wilde’s classic, that leans heavily on the 1948 film, features Shonibare as the morally corrupt dandy. Here Shonibare engages in two forms of subversion and play. First, as a Black male artist he displaces the white male dandy. In this way, the Black body becomes central to the narrative, as opposed to being used as a narrative device or othered. Second, the story of Dorian Gray exemplifies the Western idea of evil character, speaking upon the body.    

 The ultimate reveal of Gray(Shonibare), represented in the last image and the only image in color, shows a prone Gray wearing the full weight of his “diseased” living on his body. Shonibare has said that Dorian Gray was part of his working out the idea of mortality. I would  suggest that it is a way to understand the projections of disease onto the body. As a Black male differently abled body, creating art that is unapologetically post-colonial, and yet deals with the global colonialist project, much is foisted onto both the physical person of Shonibare, as well as his work.    

 The (dis)abled body is often assumed to reflect transgression. In the case of Gray, where the title character lived a debauched life, violating Victorian mores and prohibitions, the punishment in the end is to carry the violation of social norms on the body. But of course, Victorian culture was deeply hypocritical – holding incredibly high standards for behavior and yet engaging in exploitative imperialist practices. By inserting himself into the narrative, Shonibare forces us to see the ablist discourse underpinning Wilde’s original text. It also causes us to reflect more carefully on the idea of the politized dandy. For after all, Wilde himself was called a dandy, imprisoned for his sexuality – his ideas and morality put upon his body – and in fact used to weight and mark his body, labeling him as “diseased.”  The visual disruption, that Shonibare’s physical presence haults the immediate association of morality with the body, and enables the viewer to engage with the true epistemology of the text: the ideas of mortality, justice, self-reflection, and internal pain, instead of projecting morality onto the body.    

The last image of Yinka Shonibare's Dorian Gray

        

 

The Jackson’s Give us 5 Ways They Continue to be Whack

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on December 4, 2009 by thebibliophile

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This is so whack I had to post twice in one day.

Five Ways the Jackson’s Show Us They Continue to be Whack

1. Capiltalizing on their brother Michael’s death. No one, but no one, would be interested in the remaining members of the Jackson family if it were not (sadly) due to the tragic death of Michael Jackson.

2. WTH? You should never have cameras following you around when you are recovering from and healing from the grief (and all the stages of grief) when loosing a loved one.

3. Michael Jackson would not want his children within a 100 miles of this ish. Diana you better come get these children.

4. Business in the street….let me rephrase so that we can all understand: Biznatch all up in da street!

5. Selling your souls, brothers. Selling your souls.

Looklet Look of the Day

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on December 4, 2009 by thebibliophile

look image

National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give it to Somebody Not Black Month!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on December 3, 2009 by thebibliophile

Author Carleen Brice. Photo credit: Gail Gudder

Carleen Brice, author of Orange Mint and Honey, has launched a blog celebrating December as “Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give it to Somebody Not Black” month. Her blog, White Readers, Meet Black Authors, is designed as (a somewhat tongue in cheek) introduction of white readers to Black authors. You can hear Brice on Tavis Smiley, discussing her grassroots efforts, here

Brice, citing an online conversation post-election about whether white readers could be persuaded to read Black authors, and a viral letter to Oprah encouraging the mogul who fiercely celebrates reading, to incorporate and promote literature written by a more diverse spectrum of Black authors – not those just widely known (and accepted) by the literary canon like Toni Morrison, Stephen Carter, and Alice Walker, but also those writing experimental, accessible, or different kinds of stories. Authors like Brice herself, who received strong praise for her novel Orange Mint and Honey, Erica Simone Turnipseed who wrote A Love Noire and its follow up Hunger, Bernice L. McFadden author of Sugar, or Martha Southgate author of two critically acclaimed books for adults, The Fall of Rome and Third Girl from the Left. In her list of “Top 10 reasons white readers should read Black authors,” Brice balances a good deal of humor, while making some serious points, saying:  

6.You already like our music, dances, food, fashion and films.
5. Didn’t you resolve to try new things this year?
4. In October, Nikki Giovanni told me this was the best book of 2008 (so far).
3. Paraphrasing President-Elect Obama, we’re not black states of fiction and white states of fiction. We’re the United States of fiction.
2. We read your books.     

Underlying the humor is a reasonable question: why is it that Black readers are expected to read white authors, but white readers are seldom required to, or have rarely read or expect to read, Black authors?  Hidden behind this question is an assumption that what Black authors write, is not as good as what white authors produce, or that loving African-American or African diasporic literature means that somehow one isn’t “well read,” or the assumption is made that the only books you’re reading, must be under the now ubiquitous “urban lit,” publishing category.    

Supposedly, in this post-racial climate, all doors have been flung open, and race is no longer an indicator of access or success. But the publishing field is nothing if not a business, and right now, that business is enamoured with so-called “urban lit,” often rapidly produced literature that purports to portray Black urban street life. With its accessible language, urban dialect, focus on sex and the drug game, this novels at first experienced a grassroots level popularity. Then, by all accounts, the publishing industry took notice, and the rest was history. Now you can find such gems as Purple Panties and Pit Bulls in Skirts, in the same shelf as authors like Brice, Colson Whitehead, or even (gasp) Morrison.    

I’m of two minds about urban literature. One, it needs to be clearly understood that more now than ever “urban lit,” is controlled by the publishing houses – and it’s being used to lock in African American readers, so that publishers don’t necessarily have to venture out for talent or support current Black authors. Far easier to make money hand over fist. On the other hand, the revulsion of many in Black literary circles to “urban lit,” I think is sometimes informed by issues of class and appropriateness.  To be sure, I think the concerns and critique about urban literature are real and accurate. Urban lit glorifies violence, drugs, and hypersexualization of the Black community.    

Yet, I also think we have to find a way to talk about what makes this genre appealing , in a way that doesn’t demonize those who read and enjoy reading urban lit; in a way that seeks to understand the draw of the novels, while proactively trying to shift the focus away from the genre and onto novels that offer better writing, fuller story lines, more developed characters – and not just a longer version of a BET video.  I think we also have to be honest about whether or not readers are honestly seeing a reflection of themselves in these novels, and the very real impediment of literacy as informing what readers (who may genuinely love to read, but may be limited by their literacy) select to read.    

That’s why I love Carleen Brice’s grassroots effort. She’s actively working to promote Black authors, books by Black authors, and I think encouraging Black folks to continue our grand tradition of story telling.    

It reminds me of a great quote from Toni Morrison who said,    

I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked [James] Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don’t know why I should be asked to explain your life to you. We have splendid writers to do that, but I am not one of them. It is that business of being universal, a word hopelessly stripped of meaning for me. Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world. That’s what I wish to do. If I tried to write a universal novel, it would be water. Behind this question is the suggestion that to write for black people is somehow to diminish the writing. From my perspective there are only black people. When I say ‘people,’ that’s what I mean.”    

An early edition of Octavia E. Butler's book Dawn.

 Both Brice and Morrison are challenging us, and specifically the publishing industry, on what is considered and labeled “universal.” Morrison hits the nail on the head when she points out that there is a “suggestion that to write for black people is somehow to diminish the writing.” Morrison is even bolder in her assertion of Black humanity and the right to story telling, when she says that from her “perspective there are only black people,” here she subverts and ultimately inverts the entire idea of universality, by centering black people as the sole protagonists of her literary universe – and unapologetically so. Black people are the people that concern Morrison.   

Erica Kennedy's book, Feminista

 The struggle by Black authors for attention and parity in the publishing field is not new. Science fiction great Octavia E.  Butler’s novels were often produced with white characters on the cover, even though the protagonists were predominantly of color (Black, Latino, Asian, multiracial), as a way to attract white readers – in a genre dominated nearly to exhaustive proportions by white male writers. Recently, while reading a review of Erica Kennedy’s book, Feminista, which has received strong early reviews, I recognized an unsettling trend on her book cover: though the book features Black protagonists, the cover features white-skinned people (literally, the color white) – erasing any sense of racial identification, perhaps in an attempt to broaden the “selling power” of the novel.  So! Get to your nearest computer, bookstore, or Kindle and find a book to give by a Black author. Do a search on a site like www.goodreads.com or check out Amazon. Below is a suggested list of titles  – classics and new books, to check out:    

  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
  • The Intuitionist or Sag Harbor, by Colson Whitehead
  • Song Yet Sung, by James McBride
  • The Hemingses of Monticello, by Annette Gordon-Reed
  • Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler
  • The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey, by Toi Derricotte
  • The House of Dies Drear, by Virginia Hamilton – for Y/A readers
  • A Mercy, by Toni Morrison
  • Orange Mint and Honey by Carleen Brice
  • Incognegro by Mat Johnson – a graphic novel
  • Bayou, by Jeremy Love – a graphic novel
  • Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin
  • Black Water Rising, by Attica Locke